April 4, 2008

Are CEOs Violating the Code of Ethics & Professional Conduct?

by Bill D. Smith, FAIA
Member, AIA National Ethics Council

Summary: As a member of the AIA National Ethics Council, I wonder about many of the day-to-day practices within firms across the country. I worry honorable and well-intentioned members of the AIA may violate, inadvertently, one or more of the rules of the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct [Code] in their daily routines.

I notice a pattern of complaints and areas where we architects seem to get into trouble. Of the 15 to 20 cases formally presented to the NEC each year, many fall into two categories:

  • Failure to give appropriate credit
  • Access to examples of work.

I suspect there are firm leaders who may be failing, unintentionally, to ensure the Code requirements are met. In this article, let’s look at the question of failure to give appropriate credit.

Consider, especially, the practice of midsize to large firms. Many have a staffed marketing department consisting of talented writers and graphic artists charged with getting the firm’s credentials and qualifications on the desks of those responsible for recommending or selecting architects. Sometimes this staff consists of architects who are members of the AIA. However, in many other cases, the staff members neither are trained as architects nor are they members of the AIA.

Often projects are complex. A great number of architects and specialty consultants are involved, causing the marketing staff to juggle a large volume of information provided by various team members, and they may fail, on occasion, to attribute proper credit.

What is the CEO’s role?
What does the CEO or other firm leadership do when notified that someone has raised the question of a failure to give appropriate credit and has filed a complaint with the National Ethics Council? Where do all of the firm’s leaders stand in a situation like this, and what is their responsibility?

They might contend they had no direct responsibility for the submitted materials; it was, after all, the work product of the marketing staff. That answer is insufficient when we look at Canon IV, Obligations to the Profession, specifically Rule 4.202 which states:

Members shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that those over whom they have supervisory authority conform their conduct to this Code.” [Emphasis added.]

The Commentary for this rule elaborates:

“What constitutes ‘reasonable efforts’ under this rule is a common sense matter. As it makes sense to ensure that those over whom the architect exercises supervision be made generally aware of the Code, it can also make sense to bring a particular provision to the attention of a particular employee when a situation is present which might give rise to violation.”

The Ethics page on the AIA Web site delineates guidelines for appropriate crediting, and firm leadership should initiate both quality control reviews and education programs for staff to eliminate crediting failures.

When in doubt, one should err on the side of extreme caution.

Reviewing decisions of the Ethics Council, I note cases [Case 1990-2, Case 2001-20, and Case 2004-10] where a violation of Rule 4.202 was an element of the complaint. The Council determined there was a violation of Rule 4.202 in Case 1990-2 and Case 2004-10.

Staying out of trouble
In the daily hum of running an active practice, what can a CEO do to minimize the chance of violating Rule 4.202?

  • First, and foremost, a chief executive officer must ensure the Code is ingrained in the firm’s culture. As a practical matter, multiple activities will reinforce the CEO’s commitment to practicing ethically and can offer some defense if a claim alleging a violation of Rule 4.202 is filed.
  • As a starter, the CEO must read the Code and refresh the ideals it upholds. The CEO should review the Ethics page on AIA.org to become conversant in current revisions, guidelines, decisions of the council, and any newly published version of the code.
  • Monthly, the chief executive should read a sampling of the cases and decisions posted on the AIA Web site and conduct in-house discussion and training sessions involving the entire staff. These can take any one of several forms. They can be an early morning “bagels and brainstorms,” a noon-hour “lunch and learn,” or an after hours “gab and guzzle.” Each session might take one aspect of the Code as its central topic and engage the attendees in thoughtful and animated discussion.
  • The CEO could write a review of one of the canons in the firm’s monthly newsletter or any other form of normal staff-wide communication.
  • Knowledgeable speakers should be invited to address the firm during the year. The eOffice of the General Counsel of the AIA is a resource and can provide the names of current or recent members of the NEC from the local area as well as others expert in the provisions of the Code.
  • Finally, as a part of new staff orientation, the CEO should present a copy of the Code to each new employee and reinforce the firm’s commitment to practicing ethically.

While this article has focused on the CEO, remember the language of Rule 4.202:

Members shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that those over whom they have supervisory authority conform their conduct to this Code. [Emphasis added.]

All AIA members, not just a firm’s leadership, have an obligation to uphold the Code in their professional activities.

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